Misery Index Week 5: Brent Venables failing in first season as head coach at Oklahoma

If assistant coaches could qualify for the College Football Hall of Fame, Brent Venables would have been well on his way after the last decade at Clemson. With three national titles as a defensive coordinator, including his first in 2000 at Oklahoma, Venables is more than just one of the great assistant coaches of his generation. He’s almost a force of nature with his ability to prepare and develop players and get a team to play with energy.

And yet, when Venables finally landed his dream head coaching job last year at Oklahoma, it raised some eyebrows when he appointed Ted Roof as his defensive coordinator. Roof has been around the game a long time and had some success along the way, but he has not exactly been a hot commodity the last decade, particularly after a Georgia Tech stint where he oversaw some truly awful defenses.

When you have Venables in charge of the operation, though, you expect the defense to be solid regardless of who has the coordinator title. Alas, at Oklahoma this season, it is not solid. It is shambolic.

Part of Oklahoma’s reality after a 55-24 loss to TCU is that Lincoln Riley’s unexpected departure to Southern Cal and the roster turnover that followed did not leave the Sooners in a prime position.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be this bad. It can’t be this bad. Not at Oklahoma, a program whose worst seasons this century were 8-4 (2005), 8-5 (2009) and 8-5 (2014). Those weren’t good years, but Saturday was some John Blake-era stuff from Oklahoma, allowing 668 offensive yards including an outright embarrassing 8.8 yards per rushing attempt. And for some salt in the wound, it was Garrett Riley — younger brother of the now-hated Lincoln — calling the plays for the Horned Frogs.

Brent Venables is a brilliant defensive mind, but his defense has struggled in his first season as a head coach.
Brent Venables is a brilliant defensive mind, but his defense has struggled in his first season as a head coach.

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When Oklahoma beat Nebraska 49-14 in Week 3, this looked like a normal Sooners season. But that was obviously a mirage. Maybe last week’s loss to Kansas State could be written off as a bad matchup that often troubles Oklahoma, but now the evidence is pointing toward this being a bad team.

Oklahoma is a program where fans will expect consequences for this kind of product. It’s hard to know exactly where Venables’ fingerprints on this defense end and where Roof’s begin. But Venables making such a curious hire should not have received the benefit of the doubt just because Venables is one of the great defensive coordinators of all time.

The most difficult part of making the successful transition to head coach is often surrounding yourself with a good staff. Last season, Roof worked with Venables as an analyst at Clemson so there was comfort in that pairing. But now it’s about to get really, really uncomfortable for the both of them unless something changes.

That’s why Oklahoma is No. 1 in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of which fan bases are feeling the most angst about the state of their favorite program.

Four more in misery

Houston: Having a high-profile billionaire as a super-fan can be a blessing and a curse. The upside, of course, is access to a lot of money. Because of Tilman Fertitta, a Houston guy through and through with a net worth north of $7 billion according to Bloomberg, the Cougars have been able to transform their facilities and spend bigger to hire and fire coaches than their peers in the American Athletic Conference.

But there’s also a downside. Fertitta is heavily involved in a lot of the major football decisions at Houston, and it’s questionable whether a chain restaurant magnate and reality show star who likes to make a big splash is the right person to make those calls. Fertitta, in fact, was deeply involved in recruiting Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia in 2018 and leaned heavily on their personal relationship in determining that his interest was real. “I've had cocktails with him many times,” Fertitta told ESPN.

But pulling a big-name coach from a power conference school did not guarantee much, and now it’s looking like a pretty questionable call. Holgorsen is just 21-18 at Houston after Friday’s 27-24 overtime loss to a Tulane team that was down to a third-string quarterback who did not expect to play in the game. At 2-3, Houston is one of the nation’s most disappointing teams having been tabbed as the American Athletic Conference favorite in the preseason. The Cougars aren't dynamic enough offensively despite having a fifth-year starting quarterback. They had committed double-digit penalties in every game until Tulane, when they held it to nine. And Holgorsen seems completely miserable, having said a week earlier that he "ain't taking responsibility” for his team's mental mistakes and ranted about being tired of having to motivate. Sometimes, merely having the ability to spend a lot of money for a football program is not the right answer.

Wisconsin: For 20 years, the Badgers have been an idiot-proof program. It doesn’t matter who coaches or what everyone else in the Big Ten is doing. They play an effective brand of football, they recruit their geographic footprint and they win the games they’re supposed to win. We can quibble about whether that’s always satisfying, knowing that Wisconsin’s ceiling is not high enough to really contend for a national title, but there’s huge value in being an autopilot-level winner. Heck, even Gary Andersen — who disliked the job so much he bolted after two years for Oregon State — won 19 of the 26 games he coached.

Given that context, it’s highly concerning that Wisconsin is now sinking to the bottom under Paul Chryst, whose pair of top-10 finishes in his first three seasons seems like a long time ago. After starting 1-3 last year, Wisconsin was able to pad its win total against the dregs of the Big Ten West, eventually finishing 9-4. But now the Badgers are the dregs after a 34-10 home loss to Illinois, dropping them to 2-3. And it’s not just one thing. Graham Mertz hasn’t developed into an elite quarterback. They gained just two rushing yards against Illinois. Their defense for the last couple years has fallen apart against really good opponents. We’re not saying it’s time to pull the plug on Chryst, but it’s going to head in that direction if things don’t change soon.

Kentucky: One of the reasons it seems like Mark Stoops has lost a lot of close games at Kentucky is that the Wildcats play a lot of close games. Part of maximizing that program is being right there in a lot of fourth quarters, but the margins are fine enough that it won’t always go their way. Some of those coin-flip losses, though, hit harder on a fan base than others. And the Wildcats’ 22-19 loss at Ole Miss could sting for a while because it wasn’t just a game where the bounces didn’t go in their favor. This time, Kentucky just flat-out gave it away. Between a missed 39-yard field goal and a blocked extra point, Kentucky should have had at least 23 points. But even more gutting was quarterback Will Levis fumbling away Kentucky’s final two possessions, both inside the Ole Miss 20-yard line. If you can’t get points — or at least a tying field goal attempt — out of those two drives, you’ve failed. And Kentucky has established itself as a good enough program and a serious enough fan base to own how disappointing it is to lose in that fashion.

Iowa State: It’s never easy for a coach with a struggling kicker to know whether it’s worth trying for field goals in a close game. You want to have faith in your guy, but sometimes they just don’t have it. And Jace Gilbert, the Cyclones’ freshman kicker, did not have it Saturday. He missed a 38-yarder, made a 35-yarder and then missed a 45-yarder. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. And for coach Matt Campbell, it should have been an automatic decision to go for a fourth-and-1 at Kansas’ 20-yard line Saturday with a little less than a minute left. Iowa State could have tried to score a touchdown. It could have gotten closer for an easier kick. Instead, Campbell defaulted to a 37-yard attempt to tie the game and put Gilbert in a difficult, pressure-packed spot. Again, Gilbert missed, allowing Kansas to escape with a 14-11 win.

It’s not easy to lose a game in which you hold an opponent to 213 yards of offense, but somehow the Cyclones managed it. Campbell has been very good during his time in Ames, but they lost five games last year by one score. Two of their three losses in 2020 were by one score. They lost four times by one score in 2019. And with two already this year, that’s a lot of opportunity to leave on the table.

Miserable but not miserable enough

Georgia: Expectations matter in the Misery Index. When you’re the defending national champion, No. 1 in the polls and loaded with talent, struggling against a mediocre opponent is a panic-inducing event. And it’s now happened two weeks in a row. If Georgia was merely bored last week in a 39-22 win over Kent State that was competitive for far too long, how would you explain such a pedestrian performance at Missouri? Though Georgia finally wore down the Tigers’ defense and won 26-22, the Bulldogs trailed the entire game until finally grinding out a lead with 4:03 remaining. It’s hard to pinpoint one or two glaring issues with Georgia, but they're just a little off everywhere at this point in the season. The Dawgs may still be the national title favorite, but they’re certainly not inevitable.

Texas A&M: Reality set in at least a few weeks ago that the Aggies are still not an elite football program, and yet Jimbo Fisher’s insane contract makes it impossible to ignore the deep state of discomfort this fan base is experiencing with a 3-2 record. After two shaky wins against Miami and Arkansas, the Aggies reverted to the mean in a 42-24 loss at Mississippi State. It should be absolutely galling to Texas A&M that Mike Leach has a better team in Year 3 at one of the SEC’s more difficult jobs than Fisher does in Year 5 with unlimited resources. And yet, by giving Fisher a contract that runs through 2031 at more than $9 million a year, it almost doesn’t matter what the record is. They’re stuck for a good while.

Fresno State: There’s never a good time to lose to UConn. But you definitely don’t want to be the first FBS-level team to lose to UConn since Oct. 26, 2019. In fact, in UConn’s last 47 games, it has only beaten Rhode Island, Wagner, UMass, Yale, Central Connecticut and now Fresno State. The Bulldogs did not look like a great team early this season, but who knew they were bad enough to gain just 187 total yards and lose 19-14 to the Huskies? After going 10-3 last year under Kalen DeBoer, who left to be the head coach at Washington, it’s hard to imagine such a quick nosedive.

Pittsburgh: There are few greater indignities in college football than losing to a team that has been such a dumpster fire that it fired the coach with several games left in the season. And yet, sometimes suffering those kinds of indignities is Pitt’s cross to bear. There was really no reason for Georgia Tech to win any game this year, much less five days after firing Geoff Collins. And yet the Yellow Jackets managed to find an easy mark in Pitt, which completely imploded in the fourth quarter of a 26-21 loss. After breaking out to win an ACC title last year, it’s back to the mushy middle for the Panthers where there is little sense to be made of any win or loss in a given week.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oklahoma defense struggling in Brent Venbables' first season as coach